There are simulator games for practically everything these days, so it’s perhaps surprising that Bus Simulator is launching so late in the generation. Austrian developer Still Alive Studios has been checking tickets on the PC for a while now, but this year it will make a stop on the PlayStation 4. Recognising this author’s fandom for the likes of Farming Simulator and Train Sim World, publisher Astragon Entertainment flew us to Munich, Germany in order to spend several hours with the title – and, of course, experience the local public transport first-hand.
This is an interesting game because while it subscribes to much of the nuance of its forebears, it ultimately ends up feeling like a mixture of a management sim and, at times, an arcade game. While there are realistic and simplified settings, you’ll still have to manually get your bus on the road, which involves toggling all kinds of controls from the cockpit – including removing the parking brake, starting the ignition, enabling any lights, and operating the window wipers depending upon the weather.
You play from a first-person perspective, but you can also toggle to a view behind the rear of the bus, and there’s also a third-person element where you can travel on foot, too. Amusingly, this behind-the-shoulder viewpoint comes into play when you, for example, have to retrieve someone’s left behind luggage and return it to them. There are tons of obstacles that will hinder you from simply driving the bus, and it adds a lot of multitasking to the gameplay loop.
For example, you’ll need to check the tickets of any passengers, either by manually stepping out of the driver’s seat and physically asking people – or by looking into a mirror above the front window-screen and interacting with folk that way. Occasionally a passenger will come on with a noisy stereo, and you’ll have to tell them to turn the volume down. Or alternatively, there are people who will simply obstruct the bus’ doors, so you’ll need to ensure they alight the vehicle properly.
This all adds variety to the simple act of driving the bus, which operates much as you’d expect it to. You can enable a speed limiter which will prevent you from picking up fines, and you’ll need to indicate at all the right times in order to ensure you’re driving safely. Touching curbs or other vehicles will inflict penalties that will reduce your overall earnings for the day, while obviously driving into civilians is a big no-no and can seriously inhibit your cash flow.
You create your own routes from an open world map inspired by European countries such as Germany. At the start of the game you have access to an urban area, populated by large businesses and cafes, but the map does eventually open up, taking you to more rural areas, as well as narrow corridor-like residential regions that will be more challenging to navigate. You design your own routes using a map screen, and as you level up certain stops, you can add more routes through them, effectively building an empire.
And this is where Bus Simulator becomes more of a management sim than a pure working simulation. As the owner of your own public transport empire, you’ll eventually be able to hire new drivers and purchase additional vehicles which will run routes for you. Your staff earn a percentage of your best score for each route, so the game actually encourages you to play professionally, so you can then maximise your earnings when you send your employees out to do the work for you. It’s a smart gameplay loop that’s designed to keep you behind the steering wheel even when you’re playing tycoon.
The game also has a great sense of humour. The CVs that you’ll receive from potential new drivers are laugh out loud funny, while you’ll overhear some stunning conversations between passengers as you drive the bus. We eavesdropped on one elderly gentleman informing his startled friend that he’d just bought some “new shampoo”, while a lady pondered whether her swimsuit would still fit upon being invited to a nearby beach. As you can imagine, catching fare dodgers is also quite entertaining.
You have to process tickets for customers who don’t already have one, which means punching in the exact criteria requested and issuing the right amount of change. As driving the bus itself isn’t quite as involved as, say, the trains in Train Sim World, the developer’s done a really good job of adding random events to the experience that can occur when you’re on the road. For example, a car may be blocking a bus stop so you’ll need to honk your horn to get it out of the way, or a disabled passenger may require a ramp to alight.
You’re in charge of all of this, and you’re ranked depending on how you do. Obviously your priority is to reach each stop on time, but driving recklessly over speed bumps, clipping curbs, and running red lights will see your rating drop – and your financial situation sour. It remains to be seen how heavily you will be punished for not abiding to the rules of the road, but as your overall objective is to build an empire here, we’re going to assume that you’ll need significant reserves of cash to buy the best buses and recruit the top drivers.
Of course, you can play online if you’d prefer real people to drive your routes for you. Supporting up to four-players, you’ll all exist within the same open world, contributing to the success of your own multiplayer public transport company. You can either play as another driver, or you can ride shotgun with a friend, checking tickets and ensuring that everyone’s journey is as comfortable as it can be. These modes are extremely popular in similar series such as Farming Simulator, so we can see it attracting a small but dedicated community here as well.
Our only real major criticism is that it feels like half of the game’s budget was spent flying us over to try it. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s not a looker – even on the more powerful PS4 Pro, where the additional horsepower is being used to bump up the resolution and slightly improve the textures. Character models are ugly as sin, and while there is some personality in the open world, it looks dated. We would have loved optional PlayStation VR support to have made the grade here, as it would add a lot to the experience being able to manually check mirrors and the passengers behind you, but the performance just doesn’t feel anywhere smooth enough on a standard television for that to be a remotely realistic request.
That said, there’s definitely something moreish here, with traditional mechanics like experience points and mini-quests giving it a more “gamey” feel than its contemporaries. It’s definitely still a simulation title, but Still Alive Studios appears to have straddled the line between arcade and management as well, making for a compelling concoction that we can see ourselves spending a lot of time with. If you’ve ever been attracted to this genre in the past, then this may well be the entry point you’ve been looking for – we’re, for want of a better pun, very much on board.
This article is based on a press trip to Munich, Germany. Astragon Entertainment covered travel and accommodation costs, but sadly didn’t provide us with a real-life bus to drive.